TAKING THE HELM, and Other Boat Puns: Inside “Poseidon!” with Derek Van Barham

TAKING THE HELM, and Other Boat Puns: Inside “Poseidon!” with Derek Van Barham

Pictured: Director Derek Van Barham in rehearsal.

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By Director Derek Van Barham

How do you create something new out of something that desperately wants to stay the same? What a quaint little camp conundrum. Well, the devil is in the details. And Hell in a Handbag knows the devil quite well!

With the 2019 remount of “Poseidon!: An Upside Down Musical” open, the want is to look forward. But it’s hard not to also look back. The magic of camp is in re-creation. It is found in capturing the specific look, mimicking the exact intonation. We’re trying to pay homage to something remembered for being spectacular. Or spectacularly bad. Or both.

Artistic Director David Cerda jokes that Hell in a Handbag isn’t a theatre company – it’s a cult. He’s not wrong. This is my third outing as a director with Handbag, and I’m finally starting to feel like one of the gang. It’s always a fun, welcoming environment, but there is a learning curve. There’s so much history, so many shared experiences. From the artists and the ensemble to the audiences who keep coming back again and again – there’s a shared love of camp and crass that I look forward to every time.

What makes “Poseidon!” so special (and challenging) is the fondness with which people remember it. A good parody captures the essence of the source material. A revival of a good parody also needs to nod to the original production. We’re not just paying homage to Shelley Winters and Carol Lynley, but also to Steve Kimbrough and Ed Jones. To some extent, we’re all filling someone else’s shoes. No pressure, right?

One of my favorite parts of working with Handbag is introducing new performers to the mix. Our cast is a blend of seasoned ensemble members and Handbag virgins. I’m so excited for them to experience the Handbag audience for the first time. It’s such a unique energy: a respectful kind of rowdy – full of love, laughter and an appreciation for each detail we get right. They’re especially warmed up for Act Two. I’m not saying it’s the bar that helps, but let’s just say the bartender is one of the most important members of our crew.

There’s no shortage of puns to be found when comparing theatre to a luxury liner, and given the punny nature of our production, it’d be a sin not to spout out a few. The rehearsal process was quite a journey, and I cannot wait for this ship to reach its destination. Though we took a few detours, I am certain we will safely make it to port. We’d be nowhere without our incredible crew, who took such good care of our passengers (cast) along the way.

To quote the show: “I’d like to propose a toast. Here’s to the passengers that aren’t with us today.” Cheers to Shelley Winters, to Roddy McDowall, to Ernest Borgnine. Cheers to Matthew Gunnels, to Ron Kelly, to Kurt Kolar. “They climbed and fought like hell and we will never ever forget them!”
They each created something great.

We can’t repeat it, but we can honor it, and add to it. We pass it down to make sure it’s not forgotten, and hope someone else will do the same.

“Poseidon! An Upside Down Musical” runs through

Derek Van Barham is the Producing Artistic Director of Kokandy Productions and a member of the Red Tape Theatre ensemble. He previously served as Associate Artistic Director of Pride Films & Plays. For PFP, he directed Perfect Arrangement, Angry Fags (Steppenwolf Garage), Songs from an Unmade Bed (Jeff nomination) and (co-directing) PRISCILLA, Queen of the Desert. Other directing credits include The View Upstairs (Circle Theatre), Three Days of Rain (Boho), Miracle! by Dan Savage,Skooby Don’t (Hell in a Handbag) and HOT PINK (New American Folk Theatre). He was named one of Windy City Times 30 Under 30, recognizing Chicago’s LGBTQ+ community.

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